Meet OCSD’s first female pilot, a Coast Guard lieutenant who manages to stay grounded

By Greg Hardesty

The young teenager was living in the mountains of the Himalayas.

From her home located some 7,500 feet above sea level, she loved to gaze at the birds hovering over the middle of a valley.

She would grab her father’s video camera and zoom in on them, aching to see what they were seeing from their perspective.

“Then and there,” says Jonna L. Clouse, “at the age of 14, that’s when I decided to fly helicopters.”

She’s telling this story from a hangar at John Wayne Airport over the frequent roar of airplanes landing and taking off.

Jonna Clouse volunteers as an OCSD Air Support Unit search-and-rescue pilot at least two weekends a month. In addition, she’s a full-time lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Now 33, Clouse, who with her older sister saw a lot of the world growing up as children of missionaries, has achieved her dream of flying helicopters — and then some.

A search-and-rescue pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard for more than six years, Clouse made history when, in February 2017, she became the OCSD Air Support Unit’s first female pilot.

And she flies for the OCSD for free on her off-duty weekends as a volunteer reserve PSR (Public Service Responder) assigned to one of the agency’s two main rescue aircraft, both UH-1H Hueys.

The Huey is the muscle car, if you will, of the OCSD’s Duke air fleet. It is used to drop water on fires and to hoist down medics to pluck people from peril, usually in the wilderness or along the coast.

Duke 6, one of the OCSD’s two UH-1H Hueys, after assisting on a fire near the toll road in Newport Beach on Sept. 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Pilot Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald

Clouse, a full-time lieutenant assigned to the Marine Investigations Office at Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach, loves to strap in behind the controls of the nearly 10,000-pound military aircraft — especially since she stopped flying MEDEVAC-capable search and rescue helicopters for the Coast Guard in 2015.

“I like the noise it makes,” Clouse says of the Huey. “It’s very loud.”

For such an accomplished search-and-rescue pilot, Clouse is, well, very grounded.

“I’m pretty a run-of-the-mill, average Jane,” she says.

Well, not quite.

She points out her usual transportation to the OCSD Air Support Unit at JWA:

A Kawasaki Ninja 650R.

“I got it up to 120 miles per hour once, but that was years ago,” Clouse says.

Her other mode of transportation is a Toyota Tacoma.

You might think Clouse merely is an adrenaline junkie, but she’s much more nuanced than that.

She’s a highly motivated, goal-driven person who loves to see the world — and help people.

“I love flying, but I need a mission,” says Clouse. “If I ever needed the paycheck, maybe I would fly commercial airplanes, but the thought of driving a bus in the air doesn’t really appeal to me.

“I find it very gratifying to be part of a team and to help save people’s lives.”

The OCSD Air Support Unit crew after a rescue in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park on Dec. 23, 2017. From left are Deputy Jason McLennan, Deputy Levon Arzumanyan, PSR Jonna Clouse and PSR Kyle Peterson. Photo courtesy of Pilot Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald

CHILD OF THE WORLD

Clouse was born in Springfield, Mo. but really is a child of the world.

She used to speak Hindi conversationally and has lived in or visited 21 countries, including Spain, where she worked as an au pair before joining the Coast Guard in 2008.

With her mind set on becoming a pilot before she was old enough to legally drive a car, Clouse attended College of the Ozarks, the Christian liberal-arts college in Point Lookout, Mo. In 2007, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration — International Business and Aviation Science.

Before heading to Spain to serve as an au pair, Clouse served as an administrative executive and pilot for a small flight school, Wings of the Ozarks.

Then it was off to the Coast Guard, where she completed Officer Candidate School and earned an officer’s commission.

Upon completion of U.S. Naval Flight Training in Pensacola, Fla., Clouse was designated a Coast Guard Aviator in 2010.

She then reported to Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, Mich., where she flew the HH-65 & MH-65C Dauphin helicopter conducting search and rescue, POTUS and joint-agency operations, alien migrant interdictions, and counter drug missions in the Great Lakes and multiple deployments to the Caribbean.

Volunteer OCSD PSR Air Support Unit pilot Jonna Clouse has accumulated more than 1,600 flight hours in both fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In 2015, she was assigned to Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles – Long Beach where she developed a vast knowledge of international and domestic maritime safety.

Clouse, who holds FAA fixed and rotary wing commercial pilot credentials with an instrument rating, has accumulated more than 1,600 flight hours in both fixed and rotary wing aircraft.

As a PSR for the OCSD, she’s logged close to 30 hours of flying and 200 hours of total volunteer time.

This past September, Clouse completed a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership from Argosy University.

An average Jane, indeed.

HIGH PRAISE

Pilot Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald, who runs the OCSD’s Air Support Unit, says Clouse is a perfect fit for the agency.

“Jonna brings a unique skill set that very few people have to offer,” Fitzgerald said. “With her experience as a Coast Guard search and rescue pilot, she’s done a lot of over-water rescues that very few pilots in the Southern California region get a chance to do.

“It was an easy plug-and-play for her in our department. We just had to teach her some of the public safety things, since we do things a little differently (than the Coast Guard). She transitioned nicely and picked everything up. She’s fun to work with and easy to get along with, and I think she’s doing an outstanding job.”

Jonna Clouse pilots Duke 6 as the Huey collects and dumps water on a fire near the toll road in Newport Beach on Sept. 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Pilot Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald

Says Clouse of her OCSD piloting duties: “The people I get to work with are a great crew. It’s kind of a crazy way to spend my weekends, but I love coming here to work. I love the teamwork.”

Recently, Clouse was part of a team dispatched to Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Lake Forest to render aid to a woman who had collapsed from stomach pain on a bench at the top of the Dreaded Hill trail.

The two OCSD medics Clouse hoisted below to assess the woman decided it was best for the park ranger to drive her out so she could get medical attention.

“We were able to go in and find her quickly,” recalls Clouse, who on that day happened to be at the OCSD’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Loma Ridge, near Irvine Lake. “The call came in at 11:02 a.m., and we took off 11:04 a.m. We got there at 11:07 a.m.”

In early September, Clouse and Fitzgerald worked a brush fire on the back side of Newport Coast near the toll road.

“We probably dumped 20 buckets on it,” Clouse recalls. “That was fun for me.”

Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Another memorable rescue involved two mountain bikers who had gotten in over their heads on the San Juan Trail off of Ortega Highway in the Santa Ana Mountains.

It was a very hot afternoon, and the two had run out of water on their way back.

“It was a difficult rescue,” Clouse says. “The winds were coming over the top of the mountain. The way the wind was hitting our rotor blades made it a challenge for us. We almost started spinning.”

During these and other challenging times while flying, Clouse keeps her focus on doing what she needs to do to execute as a pilot. She focuses on being logical and remaining confident in her skills

Oh, and what about the “first female” designation?

“To be honest,” Clouse says, “I hadn’t really thought about it until recently.”

She says it hasn’t always been easy excelling in a male-dominated profession.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘No, you can’t do this,’” Clouse says. “But I just love flying, so I didn’t listen to them.

“If you have something that you love to do, even if you try to walk away from it, it’s in you. It’s what you do. And so you come back to it because it’s what you love, and that’s the way it is for me with aviation. I can’t not do it.”

PSR Jonna Clouse andReserve Deputy Josh Assayag after working a brush fire near the toll road in Newport Beach on Sept. 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Pilot Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald

When Clouse reports to duty at the OCSD to work 7 a.m. to sunset, she doesn’t think much about her gender.

“My goal has always been to be part of the team, and if I need to be one of the guys, I can do that,” she says. “I just try to come in and be me. I can joke with the best of them and be serious with the best of them.”

Outside of her Coast Guard career and her volunteer OCSD duties, Clouse loves to hike, go camping — pretty much anything that doesn’t involve a TV.

She ran her first half-marathon in 2016 and has completed a couple of triathlons.

Her goal is to visit 40 countries by age 40. This year, she plans to knock off three: Greece, The Czech Republic and Denmark.

Clouse is so busy so doesn’t even have time for a pet.

But if she ever gets one, she knows what it will be:

A Scarlet macaw, the large, very colorful South American parrot.

A bird, of course.

OCSD PSR Air Support Unit Pilot Jonna Clouse with Air Support Unit Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald in front of a UH-1H Iroquois “Huey” helicopter the OCSD uses for rescue missions and to help put out fires.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC